Roseanna by Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö

I was inspired to read the Martin Beck series by Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö by Sarah’s post at Crimepieces, and once I became aware of the series, I found references to it in many places.  I don’t usually read crime novels from the 1960’s, but I’m making an exception because this series is an inspiration for tons of Swedish crime writers as well as crime writers of other nationalities.

Martin Beck, always referred to by his full name in the novel, is a prone-to-illness, dogged detective in his early forties.  He tells himself that he has “three of the most important virtues a policeman can have…You are stubborn, logical, and completely calm.”  And like many other police investigator protagonists after him, he is unhappily married and somewhat depressed.

The novel centers into the murder and rape investigation of a woman who was unearthed in a canal in a dredging operation in an area known for tourists on Lake Vattern.  It’s a long and disheartening investigation that lasts over six months, and Sjöwall and Wahlöö  let us into all the details of the search first for the identity of the murder victim and then of her killer.

What struck me first of all about the book is that the opening chapter focuses on the bureaucracy involved in the dredging of the canal and the police force.  It’s a huge tipoff that Sjöwall and Wahlöö  are interested in more than characters and plot:  they are interested in showing Swedish society and its institutions.  Unlike other police procedurals, Roseanna doesn’t just feel like a series of police interviews and interrogations either.

The other thing that sticks out about this book is the length and the sense of hopelessness in the investigation.  Part of the reason the investigation takes so long is that it takes place before the era of email, fax machines, or any other communication faster than a telegram.  The other reason is that it takes quite a long time to identify the murder victim as Roseanna.

I was a bit put off by the sense that Roseanna herself was on trial during some of the police investigation:  her sex life is really not at issue when she is the victim of rape and murder.  Also, I was a bit shocked by how the police decided to solve the crime.  It seemed very risky, but I also don’t know the intricacies of Swedish criminal law to know just how unethical the operation was.

Other reviews of Roseanna can be found at Confessions of a Mystery Novelist and Reactions to Reading.


Roseanna Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö, translated by Lois Roth

Vintage Crime/ Black Lizard (translated in 1967, 2nd edition, 2008), originally published in Sweden in 1965

Source: library e-book

7 thoughts on “Roseanna by Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö

  1. Hi Rebecca. Great review that sums up some of the dilemmas of the book. The ending is I think deliberately shocking. I hold you enjoyed it enough to read more in the series.

    • I’ll definitely read more of the series, Sarah. I think my issues with the book are generational, but that won’t keep me from the rest of the books.

  2. Rebecca – Thanks for such a thoughtful review. You definitely bring up some of the major things that stand out in this book. Now, I’m a big fan of this series, so perhaps I saw it through ‘rosier glasses’ than you did. But I think you have some very well-taken points.

    • Thanks, Margot. I did like the book, but I was a but taken aback by a couple things, including the police setting the trap to catch the killer. I have three more in the series waiting on my bookshelf!

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